Film critics have a lot of things on their plate when they sit down to deal with a movie, and some of those things can be pretty far removed from the concerns and curiosity of the typical reader. When you get down to basics, what most people want to know when reading about a given movie is: Am I going to enjoy it? Am I going to be satisfied that I spent two hours of my time that way?
Open Range will take slightly more than two hours of your time, and viewers who keep a stopwatch handy may not appreciate all of it, because it's easy to imagine how the film could have been shortened, tightened up. But I wouldn't part with a minute of it. It moves at the settled pace and with the assured stride of a national genre in a culture that values such a thing.
It's also deeply satisfying in ways that few movies are these days. Then again, few movies these days are Westerns. Fewer still are Westerns that aspire to give the sort of pleasure that even run-of-the-mill Westerns could once be depended upon to stimulate. Open Range costars and was directed by Kevin Costner, who 13 years ago won some Oscars for making Dances With Wolves. That movie had its virtues, and the new film is clearly the work of the same man, but a better measure of the satisfaction Open Range delivers is the movie in which Costner, as a featured actor, first connected with audiences: Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado in 1985.
At the time, I praised Silverado for "reminding me of a hundred Westerns, but none in particular." Unlike Costner's own subsequent Dances With Wolves, it aspired to no social, political or historical allegory, had no Statement to make beyond its own existence as a noble entry in a genre of entertainment that had been neglected for some time. That was the grandeur of it. Lawrence Kasdan clearly wanted to re-create (not reinvent or revise) the pleasures of a kind of movie he had grown up with, and had lately missed seeing. And now Kevin Costner has done the same thing.
Four paragraphs into the review and the guy still hasn't said anything about the plot. I could argue that Costner has built Open Range along similar lines, but all right, here's the plot.
A man identified only as "Boss" (Robert Duvall), who owns a small herd of cattle, is moving slowly across the vastness of the American West grazing those cattle on the open range. He has a somewhat younger right-hand man, Charley (Costner), and two still-younger hired hands, an affable giant named Mose (E.R.'s Abraham Benrubi) and a childlike Latino, Button (Diego Luna), who is barely more than a child, period. Their journey brings them to an isolated town partly owned and inarguably dominated by a range baron named Baxter (Sir Michael Gambon). Baxter hates "free-grazers," and he pays his personal town marshal (James Russo) and a small army of thugs to help him hate them. Soon one of Boss' men is dead and another on the verge of it. Boss and Charley ride into the town to get help for the wounded man and some kind of closure with Baxter.
There's a bit more. The doctor to whom the free-grazers take their friend appears to have a wife, Sue, a fine, sun-creased lady of a certain age who, one realizes with gathering satisfaction, could not imaginably have been better incarnated by anyone but Annette Bening. Circumstances oblige Boss and Charley to keep coming back to the doctor's house on a hill - otherwise occupied by a cemetery - overlooking the town. In the amber light behind the rippled, flawed glass in the windows, Boss and Charley take a number of meals, contending with small challenges like the too-delicate fingerholes in the fine-china teacups Sue has set out in honor of having company. There is also an unspoken attraction between Charley and Sue, but neither person is the sort to push it. Same goes for the filmmaker.
So no, the story situation and characters aren't strikingly original. That has rarely mattered in Westerns, and it doesn't matter here. But Westerns - movies in general - are by nature so much more than narrative premises and dramatis personae.
In the case of Westerns, pictorial splendor has often been a big recommendation; even people who hate guns and get bored with horses can look past them at the scenery. Open Range offers a good deal of breathtaking scenery, sunlight and sky, but it's disinclined to take our breath away. The first thing I noticed about the movie was how assiduously Costner and his editor refuse to linger over any setting or setup, even when its beauty cries out to be lingered over. The film adopts the same attitude toward landscape and time of day that Boss and his free-grazers would have: We're here. We're moving through. Move on.
Much better to pay attention to the small things that can, without warning, become matters of life and death: How, simply, to walk across a street that, thanks to torrential rain, has become a stream and moment by moment is turning into a river. And this while wondering whether, halfway across, you're going to look up at an open door filled with a man who wants to shoot you. I'm not sure, just now, how many scenes there are in Open Range - a conversation in a firelit clearing, horses drinking from a creek, a man waking out of a bad dream that may have been reality - that I've never seen done, visualized and rhythmed in quite the way they are here. The originality, the freshness, never announces itself as such. It's the authenticity of imagination and discovery, instead of the speciousness too many films forcefeed us.
Open Range feeds us a little too much in some ways. Craig Storper's dialogue is commendably spare, and Duvall and Costner are past-masters at handling it, inviting us to share their actorly glee in bringing life to exchanges that old comrades like Boss and Charley did not expect to be having. But even while cultivating spareness, Storper frequently overinterprets or underscores values and meanings best left to blossom through image and performance. It's also disappointing that so splendid a player as Michael Gambon should be vouchsafed a character so uninflected in his villainy as Baxter. Even Riker, the Old Testament tyrant in Shane (a clear touchstone for director Costner), had a moment or two in which to claim a trace of sympathy as an authentic pioneer and visionary.
The movie takes its time establishing characters and building to a proper climax. When that climax comes, the movie takes yet more time - an inspired decision. Costner takes less a run-up than a walk-up to the big gunfight, allowing for niceties such as Charley's asking politely to store some spare guns and ammunition in a shed at the livery stable, and Boss investing in some Cuban cigars and Swiss chocolate at the general store ("Better smoke these now while we got the chance").
The shootout itself is almost a freestanding masterpiece. Over the century-long haul of the Western genre, I can think of only a handful of films that have paid such close attention to position and trajectory, exactly how much chance Shooter A would have of hitting Target B in a particular situation, and how messy things can get. This is a scary, unpredictable, necessary gunfight (and an almost explicit riposte to the tidily compartmentalized showdown in Silverado).
And when it's over, Open Range again has a new way of looking at a scene: the necessity of a town's getting all those bodies up out of its streets and alleys.
Queen Anne/Magnolia News, Aug. 27, 2003